Extending the “Brainswarming” content for IdeaPaint…
While sitting at a panel discussion about branded content at New York University recently, it occurred to me that all brands that create content should do one particular thing on their web sites: post a statement about their content philosophy.
The panel and the audience talked a lot about issues like trust and authenticity. Some practices in branded content — like placing stories that look like journalism but are really marketing — are threatening trust in any kind of content. If the public can’t tell journalism from marketing, they’ll wonder if anything they’re reading is true. Regulators are looking at this issue, too — but the real danger for brands is less from regulators than from public attitudes.
The panel was a living representation of why the public is having a hard time knowing which content is coming at them with what purpose. It featured a top communication executive from Prudential, at top communications executive from Verizon Wireless, and a New York Times reporter. All of them play a role in producing content, and you might find any of that content in a Google search or a Buzzfeed list.
Each of the panelists detailed his or her approach to content, and all were different. The Times tries to produce impartial, objective content. Prudential creates content aimed at helping people and professionals understand financial choices, and while it’s not really pushing Prudential products, the content comes from a Prudential point of view. Verizon Wireless creates content aimed at stimulating the wireless market and the use of mobile stuff.
Other companies have different ideas. I do some writing for Cisco’s site The Network, and a lot of other veteran journalists do, too. The Network tries to produce impartial, objective content about technology, and generally asks its writers to avoid writing about Cisco.
So, really, how is a reader to know what’s going on with any piece of content? One way would be to tell them. Be transparent.
All of these companies producing content should take the time to think through what they’re trying to do and why they’re doing it — a philosophy. They should write it down as simply as possible — no more than a few sentences. Post it on the home site, and make sure every story produced contains a link back to that posting so that if a reader encounters the content on Buzzfeed, there’s a way to click and find out who produced the content and why.
Companies that are trying to fool people into thinking that marketing is objective content won’t like that idea. It gives them away. But companies like Verizon Wireless, Prudential and Cisco should like the idea because it helps build trust. It’s OK to have a point of view or a purpose to your content — as long as the audience knows what it is. That’s authenticity. And people appreciate it.
I wanted to follow up on a previous post detailing the story of how IdeaPaint commissioned me to write a short e-book about idea generation. This turned into a book and video titled “The New Art of Brainswarming.”
Brands get a lot of benefits when they create good journalistic content. “Brainswarming” illustrated one of them: a new place in search results.
When I first thought of using the word “brainswarming” earlier this year, the first thing I did was Google it. Literally nothing came up. I found results with brain and swarming separate, but not a single result showed the word brainswarming.
Google it now. Pages of results pop up, all of them in some way linking back to or mentioning IdeaPaint.
This didn’t just magically happen. IdeaPaint’s PR team did a good job of talking to the media about the e-book. First Fast Company picked up on the concept and ran a story. Then Entrepreneur magazine’s web site did its own story.
By that point, the echo chamber took over and all sorts of business blogs posted something on the brainstorming concept or about the e-book.
IdeaPaint smartly trademarked the word brainswarming. However, it didn’t grab the URL, and one of the results you’ll see is an unfinished web site at brainswarming.com, which is not owned by IdeaPaint. Oh well.
All in all, the reach of this one venture in commissioned content spread well beyond its original target.
Journalists make the best interviewers. I’m sure that sounds biased, given that I’ve spent most of my life as a journalist. But have you ever gone to a conference, for instance, where a non-journalist interviews someone on stage? The interviewer either lobs softballs that elicit rote answers or spews out multi-part questions designed to show how much the interviewer knows.
Long way of saying: If you’re a brand, and you want to build content around an interview format, bring in some journalists.
This is what Cisco has done, and it’s an interesting venture into the land of branded journalism. The company decided it wanted to collect interviews — to a large degree they are oral histories — from many of the pioneers who helped create the networked technologies we use today. To make these interviews as interesting as possible, Cisco is pairing the pioneers with veteran technology journalists who then do the interviewing. The tagline of the series: “Insights from tech luminaries captured by noted journalists.”
Also interesting is Cisco’s hands-off approach. I just did my first of these for Cisco, an interview with MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte. Cisco did not guide me in any way. Didn’t ask me to ask anything. Certainly didn’t push any Cisco agenda. And once I brought in the video of the interview and the edited text Q&A, Cisco didn’t touch it.
In the end, I believe this benefits Cisco. Readers, hopefully, see these interviews as a public service — the capturing of important historical stories. And that should engender good feelings toward the Cisco brand.
Beyond that, by taking a hands-off approach, Cisco is able to get good journalists to do the interviewing, and convince people like Vint Cerf, Bob Metcalfe and Chris Anderson to participate.
What’s lacking in Cisco’s approach is presentation. The possibilities are so great for creating a rich and vibrant web page or app that would draw in students and technologists. Instead, the main landing page is just a text list, like something from the web circa 1996. A snazzier version would no doubt multiply the brand benefits.
Still, as branded journalism goes, Cisco has the right idea with this series.
There’s a ton of confusion these days about the line between advertising and journalism. In fact, a lot of players on both sides of that equation seem to be doing everything they can to confuse the difference. Earlier this month, the managing editor of Gawker Media, Tom Scocca, let loose a hilarious fit of truth-telling. He wrote on Gawker:
“The ad that doesn’t feel like an ad — this is the grail right now, for everyone, Gawker Media very much included. So we get the occasional humiliating advertorial post, with straight-up garbage dressed to resemble actual content, through which the advertiser (or the publication) tells the reader, ‘We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.’”
But actually, I think there is a clear distinction between advertising and journalism — at least in the broad definition of journalism as anything you’d find in newspapers and magazines from The New York Times to Vogue. My version goes like this:
— Advertising is something a company wants to say, regardless of whether it’s useful, informative or relevant to the audience.
— Journalism is useful, informative and relevant to the audience, regardless of whether it’s something a company wants to say.
By definition then, advertising is usually content a company has to push at the audience — often by paying for placement. Journalism is content that people seek out and pull to them.
But there’s an interesting twist to this these days, thanks to the democratization of media in the digital age.
Just a generation ago, journalism almost always meant content generated by journalists, who were deputized by the mainstream media. The idea that companies could create journalism was laughable. Or, if journalists created stuff for companies, they would be shunned by their peers. When I was younger, if a journalist moved into PR even for a second, the journalistic code dictated that he or she could never return.
In the digital media age, that’s changed. It’s become possible for companies to generate journalism, and for the audience to accept it. A number of times in this blog, I’ve highlighted Rapha’s Rouleur biking magazine as a prime example of this. I’ve also noted Kaspersky’s ThreatPost blog.
Those are successful journalistic endeavors because the companies behind them understand the difference between journalism and advertising. They are creating content that is useful, informative, and relevant to their audiences, regardless of what the companies want to say.
And here’s the interesting double-twist: When companies let go and actually create good journalism, the audience appreciates it. The good journalism can do more to build goodwill for the brand than advertising that masquerades as pseudo-journalism.
See, Gawker’s Scocca was right about the audience. Most people are smart enough to know the difference between journalism and advertising. And when companies try to fool the people, the people either ignore the companies, or feel insulted because the company is saying, “We think you are stupid, and we have bad taste.”
I have a daughter, Alison, who is about to graduate from college and seek out a journalistic career just as a survey has declared that “newspaper reporter” is now the worst job in America. Newspaper reporting has dropped below even lumberjack, a job at which people regularly get maimed.
And yet — I’m hopeful for her. As the media landscape radically morphs, there are emerging models that are opening up interesting ways for Alison and other newcomers to do good work. In fact, while traditional media increasingly becomes a bad place for a veteran journalist to work, the media space in general might be far better for a young journalist than it was 30 years ago when I started out.
So here’s what I’m telling Alison…
First of all, this applies to a goal of doing journalistic writing — not ad copywriting, corporate white papers, press releases. We’re talking news, analysis, features, narrative non-fiction — work that an audience wants to consume and would presumably pull to them, vs. it being pushed at them.
You’re building a career, not looking for a job. A lot of the journalistic work that’s available out there is freelance, and many onlookers are quick to say that stinks — freelancing is not as secure or remunerative as a “real” job. But…is that really true?
There is a lot of need for journalistic writing out there as news web sites and branded-content sites proliferate. Some of that work is for a story here or there; some of it is for a few days a week or a month at a time. In the old days, for instance, a new graduate wouldn’t stand a prayer of getting a job at ABC News. Now there are freelance opportunities at ABCNews.com, and they have a much lower barrier to entry.
Repeat that over and over in the media. What’s better — full-time jobs you can’t get, or freelance jobs you can get?
Assemble a few freelance gigs and you can make enough for a twenty-something to live on. Do good work, and freelance gigs lead to more or better freelance gigs. And freelance also leads to full-time jobs. A media outlet would rather hire a freelancer it knows and likes than a stranger who only sent in a resume.
Job security? Who’s to say a job is security? You can get laid off. With a matrix of freelance, losing one gig doesn’t leave you with nothing. Health insurance, you can buy. You’d be paying for half of it out of your paycheck if you had a full-time job anyway.
Many of the veteran journalists I know who have left big media outlets have created their own freelance-matrix jobs, usually writing some pieces for traditional outlets while doing some writing for brands and companies (which often pays more). For better or worse, it’s the way jobs increasingly look in the twenty-first century. But it’s not all bad. Ultimately, you are then you’re own boss.
Search out branded journalism. Right now, creating legitimate journalistic branded content is all the rage across the corporate world. And there are two things that are great about that for young journalists. (1) Many of these outlets are starting from scratch, so they need writers and editors and may be more open to people with less experience. (2) Compared to media outlets or web start-ups, corporate brands have a lot of money and are likely to pay better for freelance or full-time work.
A good friend of mine from my newspaper years is now running a branded journalism site set up by a Fortune 500 company. She recently told me that she doesn’t quite know how to handle the idea that her budgets are going UP, not down.
Build your own stuff. If you’re a writer, there’s nothing like writing something you really want to write. Now you can — and should — do it for an audience.
Look, if you write freelance or take a full-time job as a young journalist, you’ll be lucky if you end up writing about your passion. But now you can do that on the side. The easiest way, of course, is to start a blog. And then when you post something, tweet the hell out of it and post it on Facebook. Hopefully this is also showing off your talents as a writer, and when a prospective employer googles you — he or she will find this and be impressed.
The other new avenue is e-books. A decade ago, when printed books still reigned, it was pretty damn hard to get a lengthy work of writing published. These days — Fifty Shades of Grey started out as a self-published e-book. Kindle Singles e-books have opened up a whole new genre — the short (50 pages or so) book.
The likelihood is that you won’t directly make any money on a blog or self-published e-book. But that’s the wrong way to think about it. This is your outlet and your showcase. It will show others what you can do, and help you get paying gigs later.
Network like crazy. And finally, here’s something key that a new graduate can do now and that was all but impossible when I started out: you can connect to people in the journalism business all over the world.
LinkedIn is an amazing tool. Use it aggressively to make connections. And then go the extra mile — meet people in person. Meet as many as you can. Tell them what you want to do and who you are. Ask them what they do and learn about their companies or work. Be gracious and optimistic and they will like you. And some of them will remember you when they have a job opening, or when a friend asks if they know a good freelancer. It’s usually a pretty certain equation: the more people you know, the more you will work.
The journalistic work environment is definitely not easy, but it never has been — at least not in my lifetime. The tactics and goals involved in building a career have changed dramatically. But to say it’s worse now than the old days is to look at the old days through rose-colored glasses.
The trick now is to stay flexible and build a career block by block — a little brand work here, a little pure journalism there, a blog, an e-book, maybe some YouTube videos, tweets, a Pinterest page.
It’s not better or worse. It just is.
Every CEO should pay attention to the success of Stephen King’s Kindle Single, Guns. It points the way to a new form of communication with the public for brands, companies and thought-leaders.
Kindle Singles have quickly turned into an interesting platform — unlike any before it. Amazon.com launched Kindle Singles two years ago, in January 2011, just as electronic book reading was really taking hold. (In its latest earnings report, Amazon said that e-book sales have become a multi-billion dollar business for the company.)
Singles generally range from about 10,000 to 20,000 words — no more than 50 pages, equal to a brisk read on a flight from Denver to New York. Most cost from 99 cents to $2.99 and exist only in electronic form, to be read on Kindles, iPads, laptops or smart phones. All in all, the friction between a Single and someone who wants to read it is almost non-existent.
A Single is also easier to create than a traditional book. Writing a 10,000-word, well-crafted and researched Single might take a couple of months. Writing the 100,000 words in a 250-page book can take a couple of years. Distribution can be lightning quick. Amazon says that King finished Guns on Friday, Jan. 18, and it was published globally by the next Friday, Jan. 25. It is now No. 1 on the Kindle Singles bestseller list.
Of course, King is a popular writer, and his fans will help push anything he writes up the charts. But he also wrote about a hot subject, and the combination proved electric.
So what can CEOs and brands glean from this?
First — short e-books are a new and interesting opportunity. They don’t have the restrictions of trying to place an op-ed piece. They are lengthy enough to explore a topic in a rich way. If written with integrity and authenticity, they can be content that people want to read — as opposed to marketing material, which people feel is pushed at them.
Second — King’s book shows the power of timeliness in this new medium. And the medium allows for timeliness. A smart communications team could look for news or a hot issue that lands right in their CEO’s strike zone. For instance, is there a well-known CEO who might have something truly enlightening to say about immigration in the U.S.? Probably. Especially if that CEO could eloquently express how immigration reform would benefit his or her company or the industry or the U.S. economy.
But then the point is: Write those 10,000 words while the topic is hot, and get it published almost instantly through an electronic channel like Kindle Singles.
One last thing to hammer home: A Kindle Single is content that people to buy. The content isn’t being pushed at them in ads, or arriving packaged in a newspaper or magazine they already subscribe to. It sits out there naked, and will only be read if a person actively pays money to download it. Which means that the content has to be good or it’s not even worth doing. It has to be well-written, credible, honest, and have something unique and helpful to say. If a CEO can do that, the company might find it can win some dedicated fans.
When the Pope got into tweeting, we wondered why so few CEOs do the same.
Now a study by Weber Shandwick reveals the sorry statistics. Just 18% of big-company CEOs are active on social networks at all, and just 2% are active on Twitter.
This despite the fact that two-thirds of consumers say their perceptions of CEOs impact their opinions of companies and the products they make. Seems like CEOs would do well to get tweeting.
By the way, the Pope is up to 1.4 million followers. But we’ll see how this goes. So far, 23 tweets since Dec. 12. The last one: “What happens in Baptism? We become united forever with Jesus, to be born again to a new life.”
Sometimes we think we’re inventing the future and find someone’s already been there.
Doing some research on branded journalism, I pulled up issues of IBM’s old Think magazine. I read a number of issues of Think more than a decade ago when researching my book about Thomas Watson Sr., but wanted to look at them again through this owned-content lens. And what I found was startling.
Seventy years ago, IBM was doing what some smart companies ought to do now.
In short, Think was a real magazine. It started out in 1935 — the teeth of the Depression — as a pet project backed by Watson. He loved to associate himself and IBM with top cultural and political figures, and he wanted IBM to be seen as what we’d today call a thought leader — not just in technology, but in business and world affairs. So he funded Think, and instructed its editor, Edmund Hackett, to fill it with great writers writing about timely topics.
The July 1942 issue, on the brink of war, has German author Thomas Mann, who fled to Switzerland when Hitler came to power, writing “The Citizen’s Wartime Duty,” and the King of Greece writing “Every Greek Was Ready.” A 1963 issue featured Sargent Shriver on “What We’ve Learned in the Peace Corps.” In 1968, Peter Drucker wrote, “Education: The High Cost of Low Production” and economist Paul Samuelson wrote, “Lifting the Curse of the Poor.”
Do those stories sound like they’re explicitly pushing IBM’s agenda? No they do not.
The publication changed over the years, but it stayed true to the idea of gathering high quality work about a range of topics, including the arts, science, and management. The magazines were mostly sent free to employees, customers, and influential people. It fizzled as a public-facing publication in the 1970s and turned into a more internal-focused magazine. By the time IBM stopped publishing Think — in IBM’s crisis years of the 1990s — it was being sent to 360,000 employees in 65 countries.
Did the magazine directly generate business for IBM? Probably not. But certainly in the 1930s and 1940s, when IBM was not yet the powerhouse we know now, Think helped it build a high-minded reputation, which the company still enjoys today.
These days, more and more companies are hiring accomplished journalists to create credible content. But no company that I know of is doing anything as lofty as Think in its heyday.
Maybe they should.